In Part 1 of this Cogitation, I suggested that we are often plagued by uncontrolled thoughts, and asked if it might be possible to train our minds and bring them under greater control.
Before turning to possible solutions, it’s worth considering how our society trains us to seek happiness in a particular direction, and to understand the power of this conditioning.
It’s not hard to understand why our externally oriented version of human happiness is pursued so relentlessly. The corporate system that dominates our culture is all about persuading us to seek solutions in its products and services, which are all about fixing our minds on the “hedonic treadmill” -- the endless pursuit of external pleasures. The last thing our corporate system wants is for us to seek happiness in our own internal resources. Occasional media reports do promote less materialistic solutions -- but these appear in the context of a flood of consumer advertising, on which newspapers, depend for their revenues.
The contemporary version of happiness is not something that has simply emerged as a product of popular opinion -- it isn‘t that society is just giving us what we want. Instead a particular version of happiness has been promoted very consciously for a very long time. John Bodley commented, for example, on the process of colonization:
“One of the most significant obstacles blocking native economic ‘progress’ was the ability of the natives to find satisfactions at relatively low and stable consumption levels . . . Outsiders quickly realised that if tribal peoples could somehow be made to reject the material satisfactions provided by their own cultures and if they could be successfully urged to desire more and more industrial goods, they would become far more willing participants in the cash economy.” (Bodley, Victims of Progress, Mayfield Publishing, 1982, p.131)
Thus the US proconsul in Haiti, financial adviser Arthur Millspaugh, wrote in 1929:
“The peasants, living lives which to us seem indolent and shiftless, are enviably carefree and contented; but, if they are to be citizens of an independent self-governing nation, they must acquire, or at least a larger number of them must acquire, a new set of wants.” (Millspaugh, “Our Haitian Problem,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. VII, No. 4, July 1929, pp.556-570)
The same strategies of social control have been applied, with great success, in Western societies over the last 100 years. The Australian social critic Alex Carey wrote:
“Beginning in 1945, the postwar conservative assault on public opinion revived the two dominant themes of the 1930s campaigns: identification of the traditional American free-enterprise system with social harmony, freedom, democracy, the family, the church, and patriotism; and identification of all government regulation of the affairs of business, and all liberals who supported such “interference”, with communism and subversion.” (Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy, University of Illinois Press, 1995, p.27)
As we have documented endlessly in our Media Alerts, facts and ideas that promote the interests of the state-corporate system are powerfully boosted. But what is more difficult to appreciate is the extent to which this conditioning prompts us to ignore or reject versions of happiness that are not system-supportive. Erich Fromm explains further:
“The average individual does not permit himself to be aware of thoughts or feelings which are incompatible with the patterns of his culture, and hence he is forced to repress them.” (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1962, p.120)
Psychologist Oliver James provides an interesting example of this phenomenon in his book, Affluenza. James describes an account of his interview with Liz, a thirty-two-year-old full-time mother of a six-month-old daughter. He asked Liz how she would feel if she took six years off work to look after her daughter and have a second child. Liz responded:
“I think I would go mad if I stayed at home for that time because I would be giving my child everything of myself, and I wouldn’t be doing something for ‘me’: work, something pleasurable and fulfilling, subject to my child being happy. So when she’s eighteen months I will go back to work because that’s when my maternity leave runs out. But things could change. The last month has been extraordinary, seriously one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to spend the day with her’ -- and it’s gorgeous.’” (James, Affluenza, Vermilion, 2007, pp.215-216)
James asked: “So why would meeting the needs of a corporation be doing something ‘for me’, but it’s not if you’re looking after your daughter meeting her needs?”
Liz agreed that this was remarkable and struggled to find an answer:
“Well, meeting her needs is much more important to me than anything else. Actually, that’s really extraordinary, why is it that paid work is more ‘for me’? . . . It shouldn’t feel like this, but I feel handicapped if I’m not earning. I’ve been earning for years now, never had to think once, ‘Can I buy this?’, just bought it. Now we’re on one income I can’t just make that decision.”
James commented on this exchange:
“I found it fascinating that, when pressed, earning money in order to be able to consume what she wanted was something ‘for me’ . . . Here is a woman who adores being with her daughter and meeting her needs, yet so profoundly has she confused wants with needs that she seriously feels that being able to buy the latest shoes is more ‘for me’ than meeting her daughter’s needs.”
James noted that in cultures where the maternal role is viewed positively, doing things for the baby is doing “something for ‘me’.” Liz has been persuaded by our society to identify self-centered consumption with personal happiness, but not the joy of loving and caring for her child.
The impact of social conditioning is such that we are often unable to perceive, or stand up for, our best interests. Instead, we wrongly assume that we have freely chosen what in fact serves someone else‘s interests. Moreover, when we have invested much of our lives in achieving happiness in a particular way, we will find it a real challenge to contradict this strategy. To do so can feel like a betrayal of everything we’ve invested in and fought for in the past. A hundred habits may be urging us to continue as we are.
A Glimpse Of Freedom -- Mind Cultivation
Interestingly, the Sanskrit word bhavana, which is translated by Westerners as ‘meditation’, actually means ‘cultivation’, while the Tibetan word gom, also translated as ‘meditation’, means simply ‘familiarization’ with ways to cultivate the mind.
One of the most important and well-known forms of mind cultivation is shamatha, which involves focusing for example on the sensations of the breath entering and leaving the nose. Many people imagine that the primary goal of this practice is to achieve peace of mind by shutting down all thoughts and focusing trance-like on the chosen object, but this is not the case. The primary purpose is to achieve a calmer mind by increasing awareness of what is happening in the mind and enhancing concentration. So how does this work?
The first thing that happens when we try to focus on the breath is that the mind finds far more interesting things to do. We may, for example, count from one to ten with every in-breath, but already as we reach number three, a thought has grabbed our attention. It is often imagined that this represents a failure in watching the breath, but in fact it doesn’t. The goal is not to stop the flow of thoughts, or to suppress thoughts; it is to notice when thoughts have taken our attention away and to then gently place our attention back on our breath. ‘Success’ does not mean achieving a laser-like focus on the breath, it means noticing when our mind wonders and then gently returning to the breath.
This might seem a tedious and pointless exercise, like watching paint dry. The point, however, is that as a consequence of noticing when our mind has wandered and then replacing our attention on the breath 10,00 or 100,000 times, we are subtly strengthening our awareness of what is happening in our mind and, so, our ability to take control of where we focus our concentration. The implications of this for our mental health are revolutionary. In his book Diamond Mind, Rob Nairn writes:
“[W]e begin to realize that we don’t have to pick up on thoughts at the moment of arising. This is the first hint of freedom in the mind: we do not have to pick up on thought. Until this realization all our processes are compulsive. We believe we have to pick up on thoughts because they appear . . . Each time we return to the meditation support [the breath], we weaken the compulsive cycle and strengthen mindfulness. This is the actual nitty-gritty of why mindfulness is so powerful. We are working directly with a fundamental psychological process. We are unwittingly dissolving our conditioning processes, not cognitively, but at the level where the conditioning happened.” (Nairn, Diamond Mind: A Psychology of Meditation, Shambhala, 1999, p.78)
Thoughts appear at lightning speeds, but the result of this meditation -- focusing on the breath, mentally wandering away, noticing that we’ve wandered away and bringing our attention back -- is that we become more alert to what is appearing in our minds. This simple fact of increased awareness creates a slight distance from thoughts as they arise. Rather than reflexively diving into the mind stream, we’re able to stand on the riverbank, as it were, to evaluate what’s happening: Do we want to dive in or not?
The great power of thoughts is that they sweep us away without awareness and their momentum can build very rapidly until we are powerless to offer resistance. The first appearance of an angry thought in our minds, for example, might well be manageable: ‘He shouldn’t have said that!’ But if we have no awareness that anger has entered our minds, after ten more, increasingly angry, thoughts: ‘He always treats me with contempt! He thinks I’m worthless! He’s trying to persuade everyone else I’m worthless! I always let people walk all over me!’ our heart may be racing, our palms sweating. Whereas a moment of awareness might have allowed us to remain on the river bank in response to the first thought, we are now in the torrent and there is nothing we can do to pull ourselves out.
The writer and experienced Buddhist meditator, Alan Wallace, notes that in traditional Tibetan houses the farm animals live downstairs and the people upstairs. Sometimes of course the ground floor neighbors decide to pay upstairs a visit, perhaps in search of food. Wallace describes the solution:
“What do you do when a pig pokes his snout through the kitchen door looking for stuff to munch? Hit him on the nose before he gets the other 200 pounds through the door! Hit the pig on the nose quick enough and he turns tail. But a pig that is already feeding at the trough is hard to get rid of . . . As soon as you identify afflictive tendencies of the mind, as soon as their snouts poke through the door of your mind, hit them on the nose . . . These are not abstract philosophical concepts.” (Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion, 2001, p.220)
The results of this kind of practice are said to be increased psychological stability or ballast -- the mind is just not so easily buffeted, shaken or convulsed by thoughts. Whereas in the absence of mind training, a simple thought might spark a raging fire of anger, anxiety or desire destroying mental equilibrium, awareness now acts as a kind of asbestos sheet separating the spark from the kindling in the mind. Nairn writes:
“The mind is now becoming more and more stable because it is no longer possible for the average change in thought/feeling to overwhelm that mind. The basis for the instability is no longer there. Once again the basis for the instability is our compulsive conviction that whatever arises has to be experienced . . . We no longer have that belief. We’ve learnt that we no longer have to do that.” (Nairn, op. cit, p.88)
If this practice feels challenging at first, gentle but consistent effort brings great rewards, as the French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard notes in his excellent book, Happiness: “we soon discover a joy in the work that makes each step a new satisfaction. We feel freedom and strength growing within us, crowding out our anxieties and fears. The sense of insecurity gives way to confidence tinged with joie de vivre, and chronic selfishness to friendly altruism”. (Ricard, Happiness, Atlantic, 2007, p.135)
But are these benefits reserved only for people who have spent tens of thousands of hours meditating in Himalayan caves? Thankfully not.
Katherine Ellison reports in Psychology Today:
“One recent study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that 40 minutes of daily meditation appears to thicken parts of the cerebral cortex involved in attention and sensory processing. In a pilot study at the University of California at San Francisco, researchers found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.” (Ellison, “Mastering Your Own Mind,” Psychology Today, Sept/Oct 2006)
So to what extent can the mind be stabilized in this way? What are the possibilities?
Stifling The Startle Reflex
Psychologist Paul Ekman investigated the magnitude of the startle reflex in a Buddhist monk, Oser (I believe this, in fact, was Matthieu Ricard), while he was performing the meditation described above. The startle reflex was chosen as a test because it is one of the most primitive human responses, involving very quick muscle spasms in response, for example, to a loud, surprising sound. So far as brain science understands, the mechanisms that control the startle reflex cannot be modified by any intentional act. (See: Daniel Goleman, “The Lama in the Lab,” Shambhala Sun, March 2003)
Oser trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades. He has completed a nine-month retreat that included meditating for eight hours a day. Although this is no mean feat, he says it cannot be compared with those among the older generation of Tibetan masters still living who have devoted ten or more years in solitary retreat to training the mind: “Without false modesty, I consider myself a very average practitioner.” (Goleman, Destructive Emotions, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.22)
Ekman recorded Oser’s heart rate and sweat response, and videotaped his facial expressions in response to a startling sound right at the top of the range -- an explosion comparable to a pistol being fired near one's ear. No one Ekman had ever tested had managed to suppress the startle reflex. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen who fire guns routinely were unable to keep themselves from startling. But Oser managed it. Ekman explains:
“When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers.”
Ekman reported that although Oser's physiology showed some slight changes, no muscles in his face moved. During the meditation, instead of the inevitable jump, there was actually a decrease in Oser's heart rate and blood pressure.
The implications are far-reaching. Ekman originally became interested in testing the startle reflex because its intensity predicts the strength of the negative emotions a person feels -- particularly fear, anger, sadness and disgust. The bigger a person's response, the more strongly that individual tends to experience these negative emotions.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman comments:
“In sum, Oser's one-pointed concentration seemed to close him off to external stimuli -- even to the startling noise of a gunshot. Given that the larger someone's startle, the more intensely that person tends to experience upsetting emotions, Oser's performance had tantalizing implications, suggesting a remarkable level of emotional equanimity.” (Goleman, “The Lama in the Lab,” op. cit)
None of this should be taken as suggesting that meditators like Oser are emotional flatliners. In related experiments, brainwave activity was found to increase 1200% in Buddhist practitioners meditating on compassion while it barely bobbled above the resting state in the control group also attempting to generate compassion. (See: Matthieu Ricard, Change Your Mind Change Your Brain)
In particular, there was a striking increase in electrical activity known as gamma in a zone of the brain that experiments have pinpointed as a centre for positive emotions. When people have high levels of this brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness. On the other hand, high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain -- in the right prefrontal cortex -- correlate with reports of distressing emotions. People with a higher level of activity in the right prefrontal site and a lower level in the left are more prone to feelings such as sadness, anxiety and worry. The Independent on Sunday comments on the results:
“[O]ut of hundreds of volunteers whose scores ranged from +0.3 (what you might call the Morrissey zone) to -0.3 (beatific) the Frenchman [Ricard] scored -0.45. He shows me the chart of volunteers' results, on his laptop. To find Ricard, you have to keep scrolling left, away from the main curve, until you eventually find him -- a remote dot at the beginning of the x-axis”. (Robert Chalmers, “Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr. Happy,” The Independent, February 18, 2007)
Often when we ponder the merits of meditating, we are deterred by thoughts of the fun we could be having instead. We could be listening to our favorite new album, watching a DVD, chatting to a friend, and generally be out enjoying ourselves.
But of course the volunteers who scored in the “Morrissey zone” between +0.3 and -0.3 in the tests are people who have been spending their lives doing just that -- most of them will have been determinedly seeking happiness in pleasurable experiences like the rest of us. But as Ricard‘s remote dot shows, people who devote significant time and energy to mind training, achieve a level of happiness and psychological well being that is almost literally off the chart.
Conclusion -- Raising The Baseline
In her recently published book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (a must-read if ever there was one), science writer Sharon Begley notes that in the last thirty years there have been some 46,000 scientific papers studying depression and just 400 on the subject of joy. Begley cites Alan Wallace:
“Western scientists have an underlying assumption that normal is absolutely as good as it gets . . . We in the modern West have grown accustomed to the assumption that the ‘normal’ mind, in the sense of one free from clinical mental illness, is a healthy one. But a ‘normal mind’ is still subject to many types of mental distress, including anxiety, frustration, restlessness, boredom, and resentment.” (Begley, Train Your, Mind Change Your Brain, Ballantine, 2007, p.250)
Fortunately, as Begley comments, science is now probing the minds of people “whose powers of attention are far above the norm, whose wellsprings of compassion dwarf those of most people, who have successfully set their happiness baseline at a point that most mortals achieve only transiently before tumbling down to something comfortably above depression but far from what may be possible.” What we learn from them “may provide the key to raising everyone -- or at least everyone who chooses to engage in the necessary mental training -- to that level”. (Ibid, p.251)
The implications are potentially dramatic. After all, to take our own case, in the final analysis the fundamental problem behind all Media Lens complaints is an institutionalized lack of compassion in media, politics and society. We believe it is the subordination of human and animal welfare to selfish greed that lies at the heart of a vast amount of unnecessary suffering.
As mainstream science continues to affirm that enduring happiness really does lie in concern for others and away from uncontrolled hedonism; as it continues to affirm the possibility of training the mind to enhance compassion and, with it, emotional well-being; so the possibility arises that the baseline of compassion in society might rise.
No matter how immovably modern structures of power might appear to be rooted in greed and violence, there seems little doubt that substantially raised levels of compassion in large numbers of individuals would have very real implications for progressive change and the removal of suffering.
This Cogitation is not intended as a guide to meditation. Ideally, people interested in exploring these issues should seek out the advice of an experienced teacher -- this is said to be by far the best way to establish an effective routine. Alternatively, or additionally, here are some excellent resources that may be of help:
Rob Nairn, Diamond Mind (Shambhala, 1999).
Sharon Begley, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine, 2007).
Matthieu Ricard, Happiness (Atlantic, 2007).
Matthieu Ricard (online video): Change Your Mind Change Your Brain.
Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness (John Wiley, 2005)
Sakyong Mipham, Turning The Mind Into An Ally, (Riverhead, 2003).
Daniel Goleman, “The Lama in the Lab,” Shambhala Sun, March 2003.
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